Look out for grapes

I’ve returned to Australia permanently. My husband and I are living with my parents in a suburb on the outer edges of Sydney, still made up of small farms and market gardens but with the tide of the expanding city lapping up against it.  It’s where I grew up. A major supermarket opened a branch here a few years ago. Even though I could see the size of the site when it was being built, I was still surprised when the completed supermarket was a huge barn of a thing –  not the petite glorified shop that I had been expecting.

In the fruit and vegetable section (which soon put paid to the greengrocers that had been in the area for as long as I could remember), there are signs warning customers to ‘look out for grapes’. They’re not just by the apparently insidious grapes, but dotted throughout. I can only imagine there was a costly slip and fall incident. I couldn’t help but think of our local supermarket in Mumbai, which during its many months of renovations had a floor covering that was largely composed of cardboard boxes irregularly duct-taped together, over a rockier topography of wires and power cables.  No signs. I guess the risks are lower when almost everyone wears flat sandals of some kind and is used to streets and sidewalks pitted with hazards.

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25 random things about life in Mumbai

…that I’m worried I’ll forget now I’m not there.

  1. Small change is almost always an issue. You’ll find life a little easier if you have a separate coin purse (or manly coin wallet) for ten and twenty rupee notes and small coins, particularly for catching autorickshaws.
  2. Ordering a whisky sour, even in a fancy bar, will not give you a delicious lemony frothy thing. It will be whisky and lime juice. Enjoyable for what it is, but not a proper whisky sour.
  3. Many Indians assume that non-vegetarian foreigners do not just eat meat, they eat nothing BUT meat. More than once, a well-meaning waiter ‘corrected’ my restaurant order from vegetarian to non-veg.
  4. It is completely usual to a) give your bag to a security person when you enter a store, and b) have your receipt stamped when you leave. It is not a comment on you. I have been told that the receipt-stamping was originally VAT-related and designed to make sure that each individual item in your bag had been rung through, but now it’s just one stamp.
  5. Even if you’ve not done it before, using some kind of face wash each day will pay off. Mumbai is very, very polluted and even if your skin is normally clear the combo of pollution and sweat is likely to lead to pimply results. Himalaya, Biotique and VLCC brands are all good, cheap and available in supermarkets.
  6. Not to be indelicate, but talc is also a good idea. Particularly during monsoon.
  7. I lost some lovely and expensive clothes to moths, and one leather bag to damp. Buy a lot of mothballs, and use them. Also use dessicant or damp-rid.
  8. When you first arrive in Mumbai, if you are there long term, you will have completed a mountain of paperwork and there will be another mountain to come. You may be tempted not to get a local bank account. Resist this temptation. It is a giant pain in the ass to have a ‘foreign’ bank account, as many Indian e-commerce websites won’t accept your credit card and paying bills is very difficult. Cash withdrawals from ATMs are also generally capped at Rs 10, 000 (approx AUD$200).
  9. On the ATM theme, ATMs are not infrequently out of order or out of cash. To the extent that it’s secure and sensible, stock up on cash when you can.
  10. Locally-brewed Indian beer is…variable in quality. Budweiser, however, is one of the few brands that is not sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup and is generally pretty good. I also liked the Indian Pride spice-flavoured beers, but I have been told that this is weird.
  11. Stock cubes are very hard to find and for some reason insanely expensive if you do find them. Stock up (boom tish!) if you can before you arrive. Olive oil and coffee (the Indian brand Karma is perfectly ok) are readily available. However,  I also had some trouble finding reliable bakers’ yeast.
  12. During monsoon, carry an umbrella at all times. Sure, it’s not raining right now. It will be.
  13. That said, if you are in the city or in a crowded area and it isn’t raining very hard, suck it up and go without. You won’t get very wet and you won’t poke people in the eye or have to maneuver an umbrella around obstacles.
  14. If you are at a monument or a museum (particularly the Prince of Wales Museum) and they have photo passes, get one if you want to take photos. You’re likely to be caught by one of umpteen security guards otherwise.
  15.  It is customary to give a bonus at Diwali (in November). The usual bonus is one month (although you can pro-rate this if you have been there less than a year). In my experience gifts other than cash are received with a bit of confusion.
  16. I found it quite hard to get used to the number of people that would come to the door without notice (let alone scheduled deliveries). I worked from home, and started to feel a little bit hunted. Male or female, you’ll find it useful to have a robe or kaftan that you can throw on and answer the door in without startling the populace.
  17. Flipkart.com is an excellent, reliable source of electronics and cheap books.
  18. Do not bother trying to order online from overseas. 70% of my parcels did not arrive, and I had to pay 30% duty on one of the parcels that did.
  19. In all but the most expensive and Western-friendly hotel restaurants, if a restaurant says ‘steak’ on the menu, they mean buffalo.
  20. It took me almost 8 months to figure this out, but fresh lime soda – one of the best things about India, I love it so – can be ordered sweet, salted, or MIXED, ie both sweet and salted. Mixed is delicious and tastes a bit like a cocktail in the best possible way.
  21. When you first move to Mumbai, schedule a weekend away (or longer) in the first couple of months. Just so you can take a breath and regroup.
  22. I didn’t really enjoy India, or Mumbai, when I first moved there. I came to enjoy it, but I will say that if you are having a hard time in the first few months (or longer) – accept it. Try to fix it, but accept it. Often, you’re finding things difficult because they are difficult.  It does get easier, but you’re neither a heathen nor a snob if you get frustrated. Just find ways to deal with and get around the frustration.  I exercised a lot. And drank cocktails!
  23. Keep your boarding pass and passport with you when you go through airport security (you will be frisked). They stamp the pass to verify that you have been through different stages of security. Although there are separate checkpoints for men and women, you often need to put your hand luggage through one central conveyor belt.
  24. Use anti-bacterial liquid soap. I have always thought it was a bit of overkill, but particularly if your bathroom tap has no hot water (and it is likely that it won’t), it makes a difference. Try to buy the sensitive skin version if you have dry skin like mine, as otherwise your hands will get red and chapped. I could never remember to both take and use hand sanitiser, but many expats do.
  25. Finally – it goes without saying that poverty and disadvantage are pandemic in Mumbai. My own view is that, as a foreigner, you need to decide what you think is an ethical and generous response – and do that. Being paralysed by distress is no more ethical than deliberate disregard.   We decided to make a monthly donation to Operation Shanti. Others I know volunteered. Accept that any response you have is by nature partial and made to some extent in the dark. By the same token, it is likely that you will be approached by people in your life (eg building or domestic staff, although I was asked by an auto driver one morning) more than once and asked to give money for something like medical bills.  Constantly being suspicious is corrosive. Decide that there are some people that you are going to trust. Take that leap. Don’t give money to everyone who asks, but don’t assume that everything is a scam.

Tastes like chicken



The Naga tribes eat frogs. We saw several baskets of frogs for sale in Kohima. It’s difficult to make out on this picture, but the frogs’ legs were tied together to prevent escape. A passer-by told me that the Nagas think of frog meat as medicinal.

Inclusive language



Inclusive language has a little way to go in Manipur. Taken in central Imphal.

Strawberries in Mahabaleshwar

mahabaleshwar strawberries


The fruit and vegetables available in Mumbai are generally fine, but after I had a particularly bizarre reaction (involving fever) to some strawberries I was wary of buying them again in the city. My parents and I drove to the hill station village of Mahabaleshwar (about 300km south east of Mumbai) in early May for the weekend. Mahabaleshwar was the summer capital of Bombay province during the British Raj. My great-great-grandparents were married there in 1867.

Mahabaleshwar is very pleasant, although super touristy. I think it would be nice in the winter when it’s a little emptier – although not so enjoyable during the monsoon when it’s apparently spectacular but sodden. These strawberries, at Rs 80 per kilo, were delicious – so much so I bought 5 kilos!

Colaba graffiti

colaba graffiti


Taken May 2013, near the Taj hotel in Colaba.


I could have sworn it was only yesterday that I last posted, but apparently ‘yesterday’ is over two months ago. I’ve been completely involved in finishing one of my chapters, which ultimately topped out at 60,000 words. I wouldn’t exactly describe it as enjoyable, but I am pleased with myself for persevering. I’ve just returned from a 10-day trip around India, so many pictures to come.

Missing stuff

Today is the first day since we’ve been here in Mumbai that I have, very specifically, missed my stuff. Not family, friends or food (although my kingdom for some fresh milk, a decent coffee and a schooner of draught beer), but stuff. My husband and I have a lot of stuff. Some of it has sentimental value, some actual value, but mostly not. I like furniture, and had pretty much purchased the maximum amount of furniture that could fit in a small terrace in Surry Hills. Most of it, except for the Ikea bookshelves and a few other things that were sold or given away, is now in storage. I miss my chairs and table. Our flat in Powai came with funiture and a lot of built ins that are actually quite beautifully made, but also quite pimpy. It’s no bad thing that we’ve been living more simply since we’ve been here – although when the time comes to pack I’m sure the reality of that will be questioned – but I do miss my bits and bobs.

‘Let corporate leaders have a say in how taxpayer money is spent’ (actual headline)

You have to admire the cut-out-the-middlemen directness of this campaign by the Times of India.

In summary:

In his budget speech on February 28, 2013, finance minister P Chidambaram announced a 10% surcharge on those with taxable income exceeding Rs 1 crore. He also announced that the surcharge on domestic companies would go up to 10% from 5% where the total income exceeds Rs 10 crore. [Approximately $200,000 AUD] As a means of raising resources, such measures makes little economic sense. The experience of the last two decades and more has shown that moderate tax rates encourage tax compliance and actually boost revenues.

A far better way of balancing the fisc [budget/books] would be to cut down on wasteful expenditure. As things stand, the government is accountable only to Parliament on how taxpayer money is spent. In other words, the political class has a monopoly on determining how this money is spent. Common sense tells us that the instincts of the political class will be to spend money on what they perceive to be most populist, not on what makes most sense in economic terms. What we need, therefore, is a mechanism to act as a check on these populist instincts. [emphasis added] We suggest that the best way of doing so is to constitute committees of eminent and credible corporate leaders representing various sectors of the economy to advise the government on expenditure. These are people who have a wealth of experience in managing large sums of money and who are not constrained by the need to ‘buy’ votes.

So, in short, the best way to deal with budget shortfalls is not to increase revenue, but to appoint a committee.

It’s interesting that the campaign assumes that the public service and Parliament are occupied by the ‘political class’, a discrete body.  Again, can’t tell whether that’s refreshingly clear eyed or a symptom of a broken system.

Before you wow him

C and I went to see the excellent Silver Linings Playbook last night (although I haven’t seen Lincoln, I wish Silver Linings had beat it for best picture as it was a lot more original than yet another Watch Daniel Day Lewis Be Commanding And Win All Awards movie). Also I want to be Jennifer Lawrence.

The ladies’ loos at R City Mall cinema were plastered with ads, for two uniquely feminine products. The first was ovulation strips. The second, the ‘rejuvenation’ cream 18 Again. The slogan on the bathroom ads for 18 Again? ‘Surprise yourself before you wow him’.   18 Again is a vaginal ‘rejuvenation’ cream (link probably NSFW). This cream claims to ‘tone’ muscles, addressing women’s ‘intimate feminine concerns’. One of the quoted medical experts says ‘This gel is for all age groups who have attained puberty and is approved by the expert gynaecologists.’ Let’s just go over that again. If you are a woman, as soon as you reach puberty, your genitals need fixing up.  And if you don’t , you could suffer from ‘lax vagina’. What does a lax vagina lead to? ‘Loss of self-confidence, and stress and irritability’, apparently. (Ironically, many of the active ingredients are simply those that increase blood flow, like many, er, ‘love’ creams – in this case, use it in good health!).